We have referred to mixed farming (what would be called coltura promiscua in Italian) several times, but the topic merits a slightly longer treatment. An excellent source is the impeccably researched book by Henri Desplanques, Campagne umbre: Contributo allo studio dei paesaggi rurali dell’Italia centrale (Umbrian Fields: Contribution to the Study of Rural Countrysides in Central Italy). Desplanques shows that what we today consider a timeless rural landscape–the vineyard whose neat shows trace the curves of a Tuscan hill, or the waves of grain that run across the Tiber River valley–are anything but ageless. Indeed, they are an extremely recent invention.
Predominant until the late 1960s was a type of agriculture which Desplanques refers to as “traditional polyculture,” where instead of strict monocultural plots (e.g. vineyards with just vines) or occasional companion plantings, there were “fields” marked by a highly-developed mix of species. In these mixed fields, farmers (or more specifically, sharecropeprs) squeezed the maximum production out of the minimum of space not through extensive planting, but rather intensive planting. Because they could not, with their limited manpower and finances, purchase or agree to sharecrop larger fields, they intensified production on those that they tended. This meant primarily using as much of the field as possible, i.e. going vertical, or as the old sharcreroppers themselves told Desplanques in the early 1960s, Si prende da sopra e da sotto (“You get [a crop] from both above and below.”).
Fields were thinly planted with “support trees” up which grapevines were trained. These trees, planted sparsely so as not to shade the crops planted below, also provided leaves for forage for the sharecroppers’ animals, as well as fuel in the form of cuttings from the yearly coppicing (or, more accurately, pollarding). In between these rows of support trees and grapevines sharecroppers planted both grain crops and legumes, the latter of which provided nitrogen fixation and improved soil fertility.
Desplanques describes this polyculture as a necessary solution in a mountainous region like Umbria, where diminishing marginal returns would set in on production on the only lands left in late medieval times, the hillsides and meadows at high altitude. Sharecropping was also “inconceivable without polyculture.” The property owner was always interested in tying the sharecropper to the land he worked, but could not do so unless there was a more or less stable means of sustenance, something that the inherent redundancy of mixed farming could provide.
Most shocking about the traditional polyculture was how long it lasted. In 1955, for vineyards, there were 126,550 hectares that were a mix of grain, vines, and trees, and only 1,520 hectares of what Desplanques refers to as “specialized vineyards” (i.e. monocultures of vines , what we think of when we hear the word “vineyard”). Over 98.8% of vineyards were mixed: “Vineyards were everywhere, but just vines were rare.” Campagne umbre is full of other valuable information–which support trees were used in which areas and why, the altitudinal limits of this kind of polyculture, different mixes of food- and forage-producing species, the sources of investment for mixed farming in the late-medieval and modern period–but the book’s importance is underlining the importance of mixed farming and its persistence.
This system could only last as long as their was not mechanization in Umbria. Desplanques notes that “there was a duel to the death between [the tractor] and the tree .” Mixed fields could not be harvested with machines, which were ever-more widespread after the first World War. He also cites leguminous forage (e.g. alfalfa), industrial varieties, and chemical fertilizers as reasons for this system’s rapid disappearance. Another is the end of sharecropping in the mid-1960s: the disappearance of the manpower and skilled labor needed to keep polyculture going coincided with the flight of rural people to the cities for better pay and the ease with which tractors could cultivate extensive fields. Intensive systems like mixed farming were no longer efficient or economical. Desplanques, writing in June of 1966, affirms that, “in the valleys only 30% of the surface area [of the fields] is still mixed with trees. The fields where ten years ago the polyculture reigned today have been transformed into open fields. [...] How much longer can this polyculture persist?” (p.622-23). Indeed, the only remnants of this centuries-old system are in the small plots that run along railroad lines, or that old farmers have maintained near their houses. One wonders if the new wave of interest in permaculture, a form of polyculture, will resuscitate interest in Umbrian agriclture. ZN
A recent article of mine on the subject can be downloaded here: NOWAK–Coltura Promiscua.